How big were our circus horses?

Dig it! exhibition Bulletin 10 of 10

So here’s the last of the Dig it! exhibition bulletins. It’s a fascinating puzzle: how large were the horses that raced in the Colchester Roman circus?

Computer magic. Four-horse chariots apparently lined up in the remains of two of the starting gates at Colchester.

If you watch modern recreations of circus races on TV or the big screen, you’ll almost invariably see the chariots being pulled by large horses. That’s how they appear for example in the various incarnations of the Ben-Hur films starting with the first one way back in 1907 up to the latest Paramount venture in 2016. Time Team’s race in the 2005 Time Team special featuring the newly-discovered circus in Colchester was no different. The problem is that there are lots of surviving Roman images showing charioteers with their horses close by and in those the horses always seem small compared with the men.

Now, it can be argued that the artists who made these images deliberately understated the size of the horses so that the animals did not dominate their pictures. Well, we now have three pieces of evidence all pointing to small horses in Colchester. The evidence takes different forms but it all points in the same direction – small horses.

The first comes from the width of the circus starting gates. We found during our excavations about fifteen years ago that the each of the gates was 3.3 m wide which, as horse-savvy visitors sometimes tell us, look too narrow to accommodate four horses in a row. Our answer? Must be that the horses were very small….

Then about five years ago we found the hoof bone (more properly known as a coffin bone) from a small horse which our animal bone specialist estimates to have been between 10 and 12 hands high. In other words, the animal measured between 40 to 48 inches to the top of its shoulders. (You can see the bone  for yourself if you visit the exhibition.)

Fragment of a 4.5 inch snaffle bit from the Roman circus.









More recently, about two years ago, we found half of a broken iron horse bit. Reconstructing this on paper revealed that it corresponds to what we would today classify as a 4.5 inch snaffle bit. Heads of horses vary so there is no exact correspondence between the bit length and the heights of horses but in general our bit points to a small horse in the 10 to 12 hands range.

So the evidence for what it is worth seems to hang together. What now? Well we are hoping, with the generous help of some owners of small horses, that we can get four 10-12 hands horses to stand in a row in one of the starting gates so that we see how well they fit. 

Meet Casper, our own Caspian horse with his friend, Caesar the mastiff dog. Both at actual size.

What sort of small horse do we have in mind? Well we’ve chosen the Caspians and it’s for lots of good reasons. They are an ancient breed from the Near East; they are small, the modern descendants being on average a little over 11 hands high; they have the conformation of a horse rather than a pony (hence they are often referred to as miniature horses); they appear in ancient pre-Roman images pulling chariots and, in modern times, are well known for being good at jumping and pulling carts.

We have no idea if any of the horses which raced in the Colchester circus were in fact Caspians – native animals would seem a more natural and certainly more straight-forward choice. But circus racing was an Empire-wide craze involving large sums of money where no doubt the best horses were sought and traded over long distances. Whatever the truth about Caspians, they seem to have been perfect horses for circus racing and therefore a good choice for our little experiment. Can’t wait to see them on the circus site and trying the gates for size!